Teach yourself body language

Why teach yourself body language?
Because when you're delivering a speech, appropriate, and controlled body language or gesture will help you deliver your message effectively.

A female mannequin 'power posing'.

And if you're not aware of your own unconscious, habitual mannerisms or body language you could be seriously undermining your speech with unnecessary distracting, or even inappropriate movement.

It can be the difference between being believed and trusted, or not.

When you know what you do, you change it and gain more control over how your presentation is received.

Why bother?

Do I really need this?

Try a quick test.

Think of someone you know very well who is unaccustomed to public speaking.

Imagine they are in front of you now.

What gestures or body stances do they habitually use?  Do they rattle coins in their pockets? Or do they stroke their chin while thinking? Perhaps they shift from one foot to the other or fold their arms across their chest?

Now picture that person standing in front of an audience giving a speech.

If you didn't know them how would you interpret their body language?

  • Would you think they were nervous?
  • Would you be distracted by all the fiddling?
  • Would you question their credibility?

And NOW see YOURSELF. What do YOU DO?

As an example here's an experience of my own:

A group of students asked if they could video a class. We were rehearsing a play and I agreed knowing it would provide valuable feedback on the process. It turned out it was feedback for everybody, myself included.

I winced as I saw myself over gesturing ... hands flying like whirly-gigs but that wasn't all. I saw face pulling as I thought something through, slumped stance ...The list went on.  The irony was I thought I had most of those habitual gestures under control! Not so.

What would you see if the camera was on you?

The brutal truth is we make a snap-judgement particularly if the person in front of us is a stranger. We give people approximately TEN seconds or less before forming an opinion about them. Any habitual gesture that doesn't enhance or support what they're saying serves as a block. They turn us off.

Working well

Before you begin practicing any of the tips below, read through these suggestions for making them work easily and effectively for you.

  • Work in front of a full length dress mirror
  • If you can video yourself do so. Playing it back will give your important feedback.
  • Go for mastery over one habit you want to modify or get rid of at a time rather than trying to banish the lot at once.
  • Remember regular smaller practices are more effective than one or two intense longer workouts.
  • Practice what you can throughout the day. You do not need to wait until you are at home to practice standing well, or relaxing your shoulders. Do it in the lunch queue, in the supermarket, anywhere.


Body language: stance

A pair of black 'mary-jane' shoes

Practice standing on two feet!
It might seem basic but often people stand on one foot with the other tucked in behind the upright leg, and then they swop over and the other foot has a turn. Soon it's the first foot's turn again, and so on. ..
The interpretation of wobbling on their feet is not: 'here is someone in control'. It's the opposite.

Practice standing 'at ease'.
Place your feet about a comfortable shoulder width apart. Make sure you are standing on the whole of your foot so your feet are fully connected to the floor. This position supports all of your body while distributing your
weight evenly through your hips and legs without undue stress.
The body language of someone standing comfortably like this says: confidence, capable, control and balanced.

Practice standing tall.
Pull yourself up to full height. Imagine a string running through you from the crown of your head to your feet. Now imagine that string being gently pulled toward the sky. Your back will straighten. Your neck will hold your
head high.

Notice the feel and look of standing straight. When you see other people standing similarly, you recognize them as being someone who feels good
about themselves. They appear to have energy, presence and power.

Let your shoulders relax.
Practice by rolling them backwards and forwards. Pretend they are a coat hanger from which your chest and arms hang. In order for them to hang well your shoulders need to straight and relaxed.

Raised shoulders can signal heightened tension, defensiveness as if you are waiting to fend off negativity or anxiety.
Shoulders habitually slumped forward say 'depressed', 'defeated' or 'closed'.

Practice breathing deeply and evenly using your diaphragm while maintaining a fully upright relaxed stance.

And now while standing on two feet, at ease, tall, with relaxed shoulders and breathing fully see and:

Notice how open your chest is.
Notice how your hips carry the weight of your upper body.
Notice how your shoulders carry your arms but most of all NOTICE how connected, strong and balanced you are. Remember that!

Gesture

The key to good gesture in public speaking is to keep it clear and appropriate.

Many of us, myself included, use a flurry of gestures. We wave our arms, point, clasp and unclasp our hands, fiddle with what ever we are holding, scratch our chins ...The variations are infinite.

Often what we are doing bears no relationship to the subject matter of our speech. Those gestures become a distraction.

A collection of men's ties.


When I was student in high school we had assemblies every morning. The highlight was not the notices or the inspiring speeches made by teachers imploring us to wear our school uniforms correctly.

(Hat on at all times in public. No self respecting girl would ever be seen without one. Oh, the shame!)

Instead it was how many times would our much loved headmaster roll his tie.

The lectern he used was supported by two pieces of wood fixed into a base. He would put his notes on the stand, balance his glasses on the end of his nose and begin. At the same time his hands as if magnetized fixed themselves on the end of his tie. As he talked his fingers rolled the tie of the day up, and then down.  Each journey was clearly visible through the uprights.

Practice speaking with your arms at your side.
You don't need to clasp your hands. Relax, and let you arms hang naturally.

Practice gesture specifically related to your content.
To be effective movement or gesture needs to arise organically from your content. That is, if you are describing something huge, you could indicate size with your arms open wide. Or maybe you want to point to something on a chart. Use one clear, large gesture.

Large gestures are ones involving the whole body.
For example: the arm moves out from the chest and is fully extended. It is committed, unambiguous.

Small gestures are those held more closely to the body. Because they are small they can be missed by your audience or misinterpreted.

If you are confident you could even incorporate a little 'acting' into your presentation. This could be to take on a voice, a gesture to illustrate a point. Again it needs to be bold and clear so the audience can read it how you intended. Once the acting is done, you move straight back into your ordinary presentation style.

Eyes & eye contact

A girl's blue eyes.

Think of all the expressions we habitually use referring to eyes, and you'll realize how important they are in communication.

We 'eye' someone up.
We ask if someone 'sees' straight.
We like getting a good 'eye-full'.
The 'eyes are the windows to the soul' and seeing them is believing!

We want the person talking to us to look at us. We don't like it if they turn their heads away, if their eyes flicker from one side of us to the other, or look down. We want to be looked straight in the eye. It is only then, that we feel met and communicated with clearly.

Potential interpretations of lack of eye contact are:

  • shyness
  • lack of self esteem
  • shame
  • deceit
  • lying
  • extreme anxiety

Although in some cultures NOT looking directly at the person you are talking to represents respect, Western society does not share this view.

Practice looking at your audience.
Choose a person and meet their eyes briefly but long enough to know you have made contact. Choose another and do the same.

Talking directly to one person as in maintaining the eye contact for too long is considered rude but shifting your focus through the members of your audience IS good. It makes them feel met.

If this is too daunting to start with, have a friend or two sit in different places throughout the audience where you can see them.

Here's another example from experience:
I had a highly regarded lecturer whose academic work was brilliant but his lecturing was dull. He would arrive with numerous bits of paper and read without looking at anybody. Neither did the pace or pitch of his voice alter from 
beginning to end. After several weeks only the most committed students remained in his classes.

Practice looking from your notes to your audience.
If you are reading, the temptation is to do just that. You stay head down for the whole of your talk. This is BORING for your audience. And rude. You have people there who made an effort to be present. Ignoring them because you are reading will make them feel cut out or alienated.

If you must read use single-side printing, double spacing and number your pages. Use a larger than usual clear font and mark all the major points with a highlighter. This will lessen the possibility of losing your place when look up to meet your audience.

Smiling

The song sings 'When you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you.' It's true. A smile says 'I like being here. I like you.'

As a speaker your smile communicates ease and confidence. It breaks the ice, lightens the mood, connects you with your audience and helps you relax.

Practice smiling at your audience.
You don't have to do it endlessly until your face hurts! (And if you do, your audience will assume there's something amiss with you!) But if you can manage one, two, three or more in appropriate places particularly coupled with eye contact, you'll be seen as a warm approachable person.

Face

A stereotypical doll's face

Many of us pull faces unconsciously. We may not be poking out our tongues or rolling our eyes but we're grimacing, biting our bottom lip and scrunching up our foreheads completely unaware of the effect it has on the people looking at us.

Meanwhile we read others faces constantly. We are looking for non-verbal cues to tell us who this person is. We want the sub-text. We want to know what is going on below the words but more than that we want to know if the words we are hearing match what we're seeing on the 'face'.

What story is your face telling?

Raised eyebrows may be saying: 'I don't believe that.' 'I doubt, or I question what ever you are saying.'

A scrunched forehead may say: 'I'm thinking hard' or 'I'm angry and stressed.'

A wrinkled up nose signals distaste. 'I don't like whatever you've just told me or I've just seen.'

Biting at your lips can be seen as anxiety or intense concentration.

Tight lips can be seen as unwilling to share information or deliberate with-holding.

A rigid jaw is often interpreted as trying to keep things under control particularly anger.

Practice consciously relaxing your face

Let the tightness in your forehead, cheeks, jaw, lips, and throat go. You'll be amazed how much better your face feels.

Do some deliberate face scrunches. Screw your entire face up into the tightest little ball of muscle you can. Hold. And now let go while breathing out. Repeat several times.

To get rid of tension in your jaw, lips and throat open your mouth as widely as you can and yawn hugely, dropping your jaw as low as it will go. Now wriggle it jaw gently from side to side. Repeat several times.

Massage gently with your finger tips the place where your jaw hinges next to your ears.

To lessen tension in your forehead massage your temples gently and the place between your eyebrows.

In summary -

In body language Open is:
The person who stands on both feet, head held high, chest exposed, and arms by side. In addition when they do gesture, its strong, they smile where appropriate, and make eye contact. We read these people as being open to experience the world. They are confident, capable and leaders!

Closed is:
The person who hangs his head, folds his arms across his chest, crosses his legs, rolls his shoulders, fiddles, and avoids eye contact. These people have closed themselves off from experience. Their body says 'keep out'. We read them as depressed, lacking in people skills, anxious, unreliable ...

A television news presenter

Your task as the speaker is to become as aware as you can of how you communicate which includes an awareness of the sub-conscious messages you may be delivering via habitual body language.

In addition to these exercises study the examples put in front of you everyday. Television has presenters. Analyse their work. What's effective? What's not? Why?

Watch videos of famous speeches and instead of listening to the speech focus on the speaker's body language. Turn the sound off. When you turn it back on again, notice how speech and movement combine to create the whole impression.

And finally ...

If you focus on telling the story of your presentation rather than yourself the energy shifts from 'me' to 'message'. You'll find it does make a difference to how you approach working with yourself to lessen the inconsistencies you find.

PS. I know it's an insanely long page. But if you're still here you'll find this fascinating - Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy's Ted Talk on 'Your body language shapes who you are'. It's superb.





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